The White Stripes

Apr 23, 2003 at 12:00 am

The White Stripes
Saturday, April 12, Brixton Academy, London

Cutting through the crap is always going to be hard when there’s been this much hype. No one has laid the responsibility at the band’s feet, but no matter. “Best New Band on the Planet” was the overall response to the White Stripes last year. The genie was out of the bottle, and all the beating-heart-of-indie denial could never stuff it back in there.

The specialty of the British genie is to build ’em up, then knock ’em down. Bands who are the saviors of rock ’n’ roll one week are charlatans the next, and so the fact that the national lovefest has lasted this long is impressive. Turning in an ingenious throbbing beast of an album that enters the British charts at No. 1 doesn’t hurt either.

Week two of the Elephant’s reign sees the Stripes doing a seven-day UK tour, ending with two nights in London’s Brixton Academy, where tickets are going for £70 a pop outside. Gone are the sweaty gigs in the back room at the Boston Arms in Tufnell Park. Welcome to the sweaty 4,300-capacity barn. The big questions have always been: Can this excitement be sustained on a larger scale? How can a pair of passionately geeky garagistas become mainstream? And how can two people, one of whom is drum-bound, possibly convey their claustrophobic and intimate energy on a larger stage?

The setup still feels intimate — a big red rug in the middle of dark acres of stage, a drum kit, a few guitars and an amp, and an organ off to the side. And when Jack and Meg step out of the darkness, the audience is already theirs, adoring, giving them everything.

The Stripes prove themselves worthy of the Clash’s famous London platform by launching into a searingly filthy “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground,” followed by a dramatic assault on “I Think I Smell A Rat.” The swaggering mastodon riff of “Seven Nation Army” comes from a Silvertone acoustic, the sloppy slide playing would do Jeff Back proud, and the crowd is heaving in unison. Meg steps out from behind the kit for a chilling vocal on “In The Cold, Cold Night,” all dusty innocence and ghostly knowing, and then goes back to her drum stool. These are the only words she’s ever spoken from a stage in the UK, and it only adds to the mystery.

Watching these two play is like watching the bastard child of a tango and a fight. With Jack as the alpha rock ’n’ roll evangelist and Meg as primal beatpound general, there was never a chance that this couldn’t project to the back row. They appear more confident than they were a year ago, freer to take the risks that pay off. The intimate gestures have just gotten bigger, particularly from Meg. Watching her lean in toward Jack, pull back, drumstick in the air with an expression that’s half come-on, half dare is like watching a toreador play a bull. This is not what people usually mean when they say ‘sexual tension’ — Jack and Meg veer from coy and playful to passionate and rageful. Whatever the magic is, they are co-conspirators in the best sense of the word.

At one point, Jack says “Me and my sister had dinner with Loretta Lynn the other night. She makes the best bread I’ve ever had in my life. Just wanted to tell you that.” And the significance is huge. The High Priest of Garage is name-dropping Loretta Lynn to a capacity audience of London hipster-types, and they’re listening to him. This is more than pop music, this is a kind of cultural power. For a country that examines its own self-referential narrative in the mirror every five minutes, this is a window into another world. A peek at the enduring and reckless American cool.

Shireen Liane is the UK correspondent for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]